The impossible task of whittling down the best hip hop and R&B from Asia this year is made more challenging when you consider the cultural vastness and variations to which these songs and their creators are intricately connected to.
In unpacking languages, rhythms, and histories, we approached the process as observers and listeners, finding common ground and relishing on the joy of discovery—most of these artists are new to us, after all—and these are the ones that excite us the most. No rankings (for now), presented in simple alphabetical order. — MC Galang, Editor
Words by MC Galang, Sofia Guanzon, and Lex Celera
1MILL – “Price Tag”
“Price Tag” isn’t the most popular track in Thai rapper 1MILL’s NGU 2, nor is it the most adventurous. It’s not even the most impressive, for that matter (the accolade goes to “MAFUCKA” simply for the Yak Gotti feature. How did he land that? Insane.) Yet “Price Tag,” stripped to its core elements, defines the direction of NGU 2, and in a greater sense, 1MILL as an artist. You can hear the stylistic leanings he has built on and the direction he is going: syrupy melodies trade turns with catchy rhymes over an insistent bass.
Listening to “Price Tag” harkens back to early SahBabii, Soundcloud rap-era Playboi Carti (an admitted influence for 1MILL), and Barter 6–era Young Thug in the sense that these songs just stick to your ear without ending in boredom without any effort. The beat coasts in your ear; you can listen to this for hours. — LC
Balming Tiger – “JUST FUN!”
South Korea’s self-touted alternative K-pop group Balming Tiger seems to have the foresight to create music that satiates some unknown, untapped yearning for the alternative, something new and different—piecing together skeletal funk-induced production that allows the rabble-rouser rapper Omega Sapien’s jocular pep to dazzle as much as shock. Often enlisting distorted soundbites and plaintive falsettos to craft tracks that are saturated with texturally rich production, the group takes on a stylistic swerve as it pieces together a succinct, skeletal track comprised of sounds that seem disjointed on their own: off-kilter piano chords, the consistent lilt of a traditional bass line, and playful interpolation of glitch sounds with chorus-like samples.
“JUST FUN” engulfs the listener into the free-spirited joy promised by the group’s animal magnetism. Sometimes, a stupidly good song that requires no explanation is all you need and “JUST FUN!” feels like an embarrassingly good time. A little messy, maybe a little unpolished in all the right places, but makes for an experience you’d look forward to return to. — SG
Calix – “Some of Y’all Pt. 2” ft. M4660T, BLKD
“Some Of Y’all Pt. 2” continues where the 2020 track by M4660T left off while venturing into the pop-leaning sensibilities of his Crash and Burn EP, released in November. The bouncy, somewhat ska-like production forms a backbone that supports the vicious and scathing lyrics targeting liberals in Philippine politics, latching on to it like fangs. The specificity in who the song speaks to leads to its potency: “Yak yak yak yak, andami sina-sabi sa Twitter lang naman / Kamandag sa internet, wala namang talab” (Yak yak yak yak, going off, but only on Twitter / Internet venom has no potency), Calix and his cohorts are not afraid to speak about issues that are invisible to the majority, lyrical hypocrisy included. “Some of Y’all Pt. 2” is more than a lyrical shoulder check—it’s straight-up character assassination. — LC
CLR – “Laya”
“Laya” in Tagalog can mean two things: “free” and “recently free,” and the distinction is key here. Like many others before him, Cebu-based CLR saw rapping as a way to reach his dreams. “Maagang natuto / maagang nagutom / maagang nauhaw” (learned early / got hungry early / got thirsty early), he shares, his heart on his sleeve.
Unlike other started-from-the-bottom narratives, “Laya” makes us feel we’re coming up with him. CLR’s happiness, as much as his success, is aspirational. “Sarap maging malaya / Lumilipad, nakangiti,” (It’s so great to be free / Flying, smiling)—the contentment he gets from his freedom is the reason he truly is. “Sarap maging malaya / Kaya ako’y malaya,” (It’s great to be free / This is why I’m free,” he raps. This man is just glad to be here. — MG
Ochomil – “D2” ft. CLR, RHYNE, OMAR BALIW, DROPPOUT
Ochomil’s “D2” sounds, feels, and even looks like something out of a Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg joint. But instead of Long Beach, we’re transported to the visually benign cityscape of Makati City, the financial center of the Philippines and home-city of the “Makktown” ensemble that includes CLR (who’s originally from Cebu), RHYNE, OMAR BALIW, and DROPPOUT.
The palpably G-funk looseness of“D2” carries a sense of joyful pride and rejoicing of simple old-school joys (which the track happily references to). “Tenga ihanda na / speaker ikonekta / Makinig at enjoy-in mo lang ang beat” (Ready your ears / Connect the speakers / Listen and just enjoy the beat), Ochomil preaches in the hook, connecting each rapper’s verse, a vignette of hustle. Life’s both a pain and a party. — MG
Dizzy Dizzo – “Wifey”
Superimposed on precise bass wobbles and minimal trap-laced production, Taiwan’s Dizzy Dizzo commands your attention and action in “Wifey.” The track is effortlessly cool, sketching out a lyrical outline of how women in modern Asian society deserve to live today.
Although female empowerment has been rehashed time and time again by female MCs, Dizzy Dizzo takes on the position with bold flair through a passionate call for nonconformity. Refreshingly, the track reinvents the power of being a “Wifey,” beyond the traditional spousal role but also as a title culled from the infinite capacity of women to reinvent themselves.
Dizzy Dizzo shared that the track was also created after being inspired by different women and the possibilities of female empowerment after becoming a mother. Much in a way that men can have their self-proclaimed titles, “Wifey” leans into the natural potency of women to build their own worlds, forge their life paths, embrace the gift of self-determination and channel these into redefining what the title means to them. — SG
FELIP – “Palayo”
Filipino pop group SB19’s Ken reintroduces himself as FELIP in his debut solo single “Palayo” (Farther). Far from the maximalist demands of pop music, FELIP’s budding solo project draws from left-field R&B sensibilities instead.
Performed in Bisaya, the track is a self-effacing confessional of wronged lover: “Abi mo ba ‘di ko mo lakaw palayo sa sa imoha (You thought I’d never walk away from you) / Ay’g huna-hunaa / ‘di nako kaya nga buhian ka (Don’t you dare think I couldn’t let you go). Straying away from the lovelorn sensibilities of most R&B tracks (a la singing-in-the-rain-to-get-the-lover-back), FELIP instead bears his heart on the line, especially the ugliest parts. There are no pleadings of reconciliation, no self-brandishing reproaches to remedy what went wrong.
“Palayo” illuminates a love that has exhausted its limits, pushing no further than what has already been done. It’s always invigorating to witness our favorite artists reinvent themselves through vastly different sounds, bodies of work, and aesthetics. It almost feels intimate, as if, by some trick of fate, we’ve been indicted into a web of secrecy that makes us feel special and chosen. For those of us most familiar with the artist as Filipino pop group SB19’s bubbly rapper, FELIP makes no empty spectacle in “Palayo.” He loses himself in it, confident in what he’s crafted and grounded in the disarming vulnerability of an artist who knows who he is. — SG
JEREFUNDAMENTAL – “Total Brutal”
Indonesian rapper JEREFUNDAMENTAL leaves no space for you to breathe in “Total Brutal.” Flanked by DJ Rencong (also known as Danger Dope) to provide scratchwork and Grass Root for production, JEREFUNDAMENTAL comes at you as an adversary out for blood.
Maybe it’s his rough, gravelly voice (somehow reminiscent of a cross-cultural mix between Filipino battle rapper Batas, Guru of Gangstarr, and Busta Rhymes) or the breakneck pace of his delivery, but “Total Brutal” doesn’t seem to dwell in the same space as its contemporaries; instead it looks towards recent decades’ affinity for gangsta rap and its explicit imagery in lyrics.
JEREFUNDAMENTAL’s “Total Brutal” has a tough exterior, sure, but there is a unique sheen to it, which is to suggest that there will always be a place for direct aggression in verse. — LC
Jin Dogg – “街風” ft. REAL-T
The abrasive bravado of Jin Dogg’s “街風” (Street Style) featuring REAL-T is, in a word, absorbing. The Japanese-Korean MC shows us around the Korean village of Ikuno-ku, Osaka, where, according to him, you can hear ringing in the phone booths. We see him and his friends roam dim alleyways as if they’re guarding the neighborhood, getting themselves a hearty, late-night grub.
There’s a palpable sense of brotherhood (身内は身内でよそはよそ—“Relatives are relatives and strangers,” Jin Dogg declares), not unlike the one that’s forged in battle. Not everyone goes to war, and your circle only gets smaller over time. It takes a certain kind of shared bond and experience to earn a staunch commitment to select others, the rest of the world be damned. — MG
Joe Flizzow – “CIAO” ft. MK, Jay Park
It’s such a pleasure to hear when heavyweights come together and do business almost effortlessly. In “CIAO,” rap superstar (rap president to his fellow Malaysians) Joe Flizzow taps MK of Malaysian group K-Clique and Jay Park on a sultry beat (produced by Singaporean hip hop artist ALYPH and co-produced by Malaysia’s SonaOne). The result is an event in itself: Each artist holds their own, oozing confidence in each of their verses.
There’s Joe Flizzow, setting the tone with references to royalty a la Coming to America with a relaxed, languid flow. Then there’s MK coming in with some grit and pulsing bravado. And then there’s Jay Park, a generous collaborator mindful of the weight of his presence. There are no weak links on this track, and with everyone present as massive as they are, it just makes “CIAO” all that more impressive. — LC
JP THE WAVY – “WAVEBODY (Remix)” ft. OZworld, LEX, ¥ellow Bucks
Nostalgia is an unquestionable gambit that assures marketability. More often than not, when a song recreates the popularized sounds of a bygone era, its novel charm can mask the quality of the song altogether. It can be deceptively simple, formulaic even, to produce odes to the past. This is why it is a gift to discover music that doesn’t rely on such tricks but brandishes these borrowed elements with inventiveness. In “WAVEBODY (Remix),” Japanese rappers JP THE WAVY, OZworld, LEX, and ¥ellow Bucks do just as much, bringing together an arsenal of sound, brimming with nostalgia and interspersed with each artist’s verve.
The quartet proves that paying homage to its past does not require sweeping replicas to create an authentic experience to pull you in but rather the capacity to inject new life into sounds we know and love with great finesse. — SG
Kurimaw – “‘Di Laging Sunday” ft. Homiewun, 6reylan6it, Bhosxz
There’s something poetic about how Filipino rapper Kurimaw closes his debut EP, Buzo_Omp, with a heartbreaker. While the rest of the five-track EP lingers on more playful and straightforward fare, “‘Di Laging Sunday” (Not Always Sunday) rounds up Kurimaw and his cohorts to succinctly articulate their vulnerabilities.
It’s in the hook that the emotions reach a climax. The vocal delivery in the hook comes off as a wail, a cry for help: “Hirap mag panggap / Ayoko magpanggap / Na alak, droga laging masarap / Minsan need ko lang naman yakap at kausap” (It’s so hard to pretend / I don’t want to pretend anymore / That alcohol and drugs always make me feel good / Sometimes all I need is an embrace and someone to talk to).
There isn’t space left in the track to dwell on your inner thoughts while listening. The result is something more visceral without coming off as out of place. Sad as it may be, the whole track remains high-spirited, as if to claim ownership over these emotional downturns. There is power when you name your demons. — LC
Muro Ami, SHNTI, Tao – “Regla”
Naming the track “Regla”—menstrual blood—is the first act of defiance in Filipino artists Muro Ami, SHNTI, and Tao’s collaborative single from Pasya (Choice), an advocacy album campaigning for the decriminalization of abortion in the Philippines. The song title does not care for euphemisms (“period,” “time of the month,” and 5,000 more others), ridding itself of implied shame and directing its fury to oppressive systems and actors.
It opens defiant, repeating endless sexist remarks women have had to endure since they’re young. “Sige, behave, ngiti ka” (Go behave, smile), Muro Ami sings, code for “make yourself smaller,” to snuff out our rage before it burns. “But anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification,” American writer, poet, and civil rights Audre Lorde said in a keynote speech addressing racism in 1981.
It is essential to underline that the fury in “Regla” exists out of the need for survival. Women’s bodies have been weaponized, exploited, and penalized for patriarchal gains, often under the guise of morality (pointed out in the irony of “Regla mo ‘to / Ba’t ako ang dinudugo?” which means, “This is your shed blood / Why am I the one bleeding?”) and rendering us, often literally, powerless.
Tao sings how her anger reminds her of her power in the song’s third act. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Lorde said in the same speech, explaining that its object is change. “Teach them why I bleed,” Tao continues. Lorde ended her keynote with a reminder on who and what to hold accountable while reminding us of “our power to envision and to reconstruct, anger by painful anger, stone upon heavy stone, a future of pollinating difference and the earth to support our choices.” — MG
SACAR a.k.a. Lil Buddha – ”Dragonfire”
Everyone loves a song dripping in a healthy dose of nihilism. Living through another languid and laborious year during a pandemic demands a measure of causticity one simply isn’t built for on their own, which is why it helps to have that resignation articulated for you. “Assuming you and I are alive / and tomorrow is the rapture / Whatcha wanna do tonight?” budding young king of NepHop (Nepalese hip hop) SACAR a.k.a. Lil Buddha asks on his explosively addicting track, “Dragonfire.”
Rapping over a deluge of gritty grunge riffs and drilling drum beats, “Dragonfire” captures the surrender to the hypothetical rapture in an onslaught of prolific lyricism. Feeling as if he’s both sneering at your idealism (as he poignantly points out: “If you read ahead you’ll all be surprised / spoiler alert! / we’re all gonna die) while luring you into abandon, there’s something utterly dizzying about an artist who assuages the existentialism of the inevitable—not with a soothing balm—but with a collision you can’t turn away from. — SG
Shan Vincent de Paul, Navz-47, Santhosh Narayanan – “Neeye Oli”
There is an air of both frustration and triumph in “Neeye Oli,” which was composed as a theme song for the 2021 sports-action film Sarpatta Parambarai. While the movie focuses on two rival clans illustrated through boxing, with undercurrent themes of racial and class divides present in the movie’s setting of ‘70s South India.
“Neeye Oli” channels these tensions to the present between Toronto-based rapper Shan Vincent De Paul and Navz-47 in Tamil. Their deliveries are harsh and dense as if they have something to prove, a sense of an underdog finally finding his due. This proves especially true in De Paul, whose family moved to Canada as refugees when he was just four years old to escape the terrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka. No breath is wasted in the attempt of reclamation by way of braggadocio: “Inside this culture that we fought for, flipped and built into empires / Made some millis with no middlemen.” With “Neeye Oli,” Shan Vincent de Paul, Navz-47, and Santhosh Narayanan aim for the jugular. — LC
Suboi – “Bet on me”
“Bet on me” tracks the Vietnamese rapper into territory that she has charted herself: traditional Vietnamese instruments, R&B inflections, and traces of PC music come together to become an engaging listening experience: one where you don’t know where the melody ends up, but still remains to be enjoyable through and through.
But Suboi, dark horse of Vietnamese hip hop, goes further with considered, passionate lyrics directed at a lover: “Bet on, bet on, bet on me / Giờ ta vui như chiêm bao” (Now we are as happy as a dream). With Suboi, there’s always layers of nuance in the song as a whole that reward you as you go deeper and deeper. “Bet on me,” a defiant bop as it is, is no exception. — LC
Tiger JK – “호심술 (Love Peace)”
Following a tumultuous year of rising Anti-Asian hate crimes across the world, Korean-American rapper, producer, and hip hop legend Tiger JK invariably addresses a traumatic experience involving his L.A.-based sister in his track, “호심술 (Love Peace).” Penning unrepentant lyrics that reflect and refract the Asian-American experience through a lens of vexation, the hip hop icon is brazen as he bares his exasperation: “Bilingual poet, been poetic but no justice / So fuck peace, if you see the devil, aim for the head.”
While the hip hop icon’s lyricism undeniably is the driving force of the song, Tiger JK’s delivery and self-assuredness serve as its formidable backbone—employing a boldness refined by the unparalleled gift of time and passionate conviction. The track bares its teeth through its lyricism and takes its final bite through its arrangement that recede for Tiger JK’s MC stylizations to take form as an instrument of its own. “Yellow skin my people with bruises in our hearts / yellow skin my people with blood boiling in our hearts / direction of our march is forward never backward,” he declares, remaining firm in his own resolve. Yet despite the sweeping turbulence of his honesty, the track is not an angry one. “호심술(Love Peace)” fiercely celebrates self-agency without being weighed down by the rage of retribution, lending its strength to those who were made to feel small. — SG
Tuan Tigabelas, SicknessMP – “Budak” ft. Kamga
“Budak” (Slave) is a brooding rumination on desire. Indonesian MC Tuan Tigabelas specifically addresses the intoxicating ways we covet, which the late poet J.D. McClatchy described as “often less what we feel than what we think about what we feel.” Its anti-consumerist condemnation of our social media-fed behavior is defeatist. No victor, no spoils.
Tigabelas warns us that this all-consuming obsession is rarely curbed. “Aku dirantai, pikiran dikuasai, se-lalu mengejar tapi tidak pernah capai / Ingin kugapai tidak pernah sampai, tidak akan pernah usai hingga” (I’m chained, mind-controlled, always chasing but never reaching / I want to reach it never arrives; it will never end until I die), he raps over a pensive production by collaborator, SicknessMP, and reinforced by featured artist Kamga’s hook: I’ll never win. — MG
Yacko x Muztang – “Pitutur”
“The defect is your propensity to hate everybody,” Indonesian rapper Yacko performs on “Pitutur,” her collaborative track with D&B artist Muztang. In the endlessly divisive space of social media, opinions are often immediately conflated as invitations for self-preservation. Hatred is spewed in the name of defense, opinion is misconstrued as fact, and rationality is suspended for sensationalism.
“Pititur” dispels these impulses with striking honesty. The word comes from Javanese, which means lesson, advice, and to a degree—warning. With the title taking on the same multifaceted nature of the word itself, the multilingual track is written in Javanese, Indonesian, and English, articulating the multi-layered issues often encountered on social media.
As the pandemic ravages on and as more of us take to social media for a semblance of connectedness, much of the behaviors we employ online are at risk of translating to real-life interaction. “Pititur” serves as both a sobering cautionary tale and a wake-up call to the perils of allowing the online space to bleed into our human relationships and interactions with the larger society. — SG
Yokai Jaki × OVER KILL (FUJI TRILL & KNUX) – ボケ死ね (Remix) ft. Jin Dogg
“ボケ死ね” (romanized as Boke shine, which literally translates to Blurred Die) is one of those songs that’s best experienced live: bodies communing, thrashing, and contorting. Punk and hip hop have always been a conductor of youthful angst, and rage can be liberating, sometimes unimaginably so.
Up-and-coming Japanese rapper Yokai Jaki opens the track with a repetitive shrieking chorus (his vocals are viciously strained throughout the track) that sounds more like distorted synths rather than the human voice, earth-shaking bass, and machine gun shots ripping through the air—a thrillingly transgressive production by OVER KILL (a collaborative project by producers FUJI TRILL and KNUX) that retains the primal quality of the 2020 original (titled “Stupid” off Jaki’s debut, Venom) and cuts the serrated outro to give way to Jin Dogg letting you know he will “beat your ass up like a f*cking fight night.” I don’t doubt it. — MG
Artist image header credit: Suboi/Instagram, Felip/SB19 Official Twitter, Tiger JK/Feel Ghood Music YouTube, Dizzy Dizzo/Kevin Im, Joe Flizzow/Press, JP THE WAVY/Instagram